Prayer might be answered after temporary Pittsfield homeless shelter closes

After the temporary homeless shelter at the former St. Joseph Central High School closed, ServiceNet is moving ahead in pursuit of approvals to offer shelter beds at First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street before winter.

PITTSFIELD — After the temporary homeless shelter at the former St. Joseph Central High School closed, ServiceNet is moving ahead in pursuit of approvals to offer shelter beds at First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street before winter.

Several years into its search space for a new shelter, an application for special permit approvals needed to allow shelter beds at the church is set to be heard by the Community Development Board on Tuesday night. Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet 's vice president of shelter and housing, said the request is made all the more urgent as physical distancing requirements force shelters across the state to depopulate.

"For the duration of this pandemic, [the church] would be our expansion to depopulate and socially distance," Sacchetti said. "We want to be good partners, good neighbors, so if that can happen and we can keep Barton's [Crossing] open, we can have two sites."

Sacchetti said plans for providing shelter during the coronavirus pandemic are fluid, and he added that there could be roadblocks along the way.

"Funding materializes and disappears, and you run into little roadblocks here and there; you set a date and most of the time it's hard to hit that date," he said. Sacchetti also said that for as long as he has been working in the field, proposals for new shelter locations have prompted opposition from some.

"There's always people that are nervous and fearful," he said. "[But], I've never had one venture that we've done that turns into a nightmare for the community; it just doesn't happen."

Sacchetti said it's nerve-racking for him to think about pulling together the prospective shelter at 55 Fenn St. by the end of the fall, when temperatures drop.

"Can we do all of this before November, the winter? That's the question. I'm not hanging my hat on this, because I know how it all works," he said.

The temporary shelter at the former St. Joe's closed Monday, after more than three months in operation, prompting criticism from advocates who said the shelter closed suddenly and left residents without a place to go.

Sacchetti said ServiceNet informed the administration about its July 13 end date at the end of June. Erin Forbush, director of housing and shelter for ServiceNet, said many residents received two to three weeks' notice.

St. Joe's opened April 7, a few weeks before emergency winter shelters at Barton's Crossing and Soldier On closed for the season. There had been about 50 people at the Barton's Crossing winter shelter, Sacchetti said, and the temporary shelter at St. Joe's accommodated the same number of residents.

In past years, Forbushsaid, up to 20 shelter beds typically were available at Barton's Crossing at 1307 North St. after the emergency winter shelter closed, though, during the pandemic, capacity has been reduced to 10.

When the pandemic arrived in the Berkshires, ServiceNet's staff had to learn how to safely operate a shelter during the pandemic, which meant that all residents had their temperatures checked and answered a health questionnaire before entering, Sacchetti said.

One individual who had requested shelter at St. Joe's presented with symptoms, but staff redirected him to an isolation room that the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency established at an area hotel, according to Forbush and Sacchetti.

"They came to work," Forbush said of ServiceNet's staff. "And I made sure they knew that they were an essential employee."

Aside from that individual, they said no one who stayed at St. Joe's during its run experienced symptoms.

At its peak, the number of residents at St. Joe's reached 50, they said. Forbush said that when the number of residents at St. Joe's started dwindling, ServiceNet began considering whether it made sense to keep the temporary shelter open.

ServiceNet had run out of money to staff St. Joe's, Sacchetti said. The organization's request for about $800,000 in emergency Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act has received "preliminary approval," he said, though the money has not arrived and he expects that the organization ultimately will receive less than that because of high demand for CARES Act money from homelessness services providers statewide.

ServiceNet would use the CARES Act money to support efforts to depopulate the shelters it runs in Pittsfield, Greenfield and Northampton.

Staff members' ultimate goal is to find long-term housing for residents, Forbush said. She said there were 18 to 20 residents at St. Joe's on the last night of shelter operations, and before then, residents already had opted to leave after learning that the temporary shelter was ending. Ten residents received beds at Barton's Crossing, which reopened at reduced capacity as St. Joe's closed, and others left to stay with family or friends, according to Sacchetti.

He said all but four residents left without arrangements in place for a place to stay.

Amanda Burke can be reached at, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.